Robin William's "Bicentennial Man" is a rare Hollywood offering, a mainstream sci-fi romance. Syrupy and a bit circular, it's true to the Isaac Asimov story that inspired it, and is actually thoughtful about some of the issues humans may have to confront if -- as so many futurists predict -- AI machines evolve into some sort of species in the 21st Century. Like "Toy Story 2," this movie has an absurd plot, but is sometimes graphically dazzling, showing how computer animation is becoming an art form of it's own.
In the last few years, Robin Williams has gone from being one of the funniest movie stars in Hollywood to one of the sappiest, so there is reason to be suspicious of "Bicentennial Man," which was previewed in some theaters across the country this weekend.
The movie is plenty syrupy, but also surprisingly faithful to the Isaac Asimov story that it's based on, and to many of the issues it raised. Like the evolution of artificial-intelligence (AI) machines, questions about whether they can possibly have emotional lives, and their relationship with human beings.
Williams plays a household-appliance robot named Andrew who develops human-like characteristics - friendship, loyalty, humor, creativity, and faces some tough questions as a result? Is he a human or a robot? Are his feelings real, or simply the pre-programmed responses of neural pathways? Is he an appliance or some new form of life? Does he have rights and can he in any way be called human?
Probably the central question, and one Asimov often raised in his wirtings, was how exactly, creations like "The Bicentennial Man" are supposed to live in a culture with enough gee-whiz technology to create them, but that typically hasn't given a though as to how they'll get along in the world.
Andrew is programmed to live forever, at least theoretically, and this puts him in conflict with the life he wants to lead, especially the fact that he feels much more human than robotic, and that everyone he loves grows old, then dies.
Most humans see him as a machine, but spurred by a sympathetic and ethical owner and his daughter, Andrew sets out to hone his evolving skills and - one can see this coming from the first scene - ends up having a lot of heart and wanting a real one (in one hilarious and self-knowing scene, a fellow robot taunts him by singing the "Tin Man" song from the "Wizard of Oz)." Andrew decides that he needs to be free to figure all of this out, and he sets off on a quest to find his place in the world. It's at this point - three-quarters of the way through, that the plot begins to unravel, and stops being even remotely plausible.
The movie is at times gorgeously-shot, and makes innovative use of computer graphics to render cities, hospitals and offices of the future. It also deals sensitively and intelligently with a lot of the issues many suspect are coming, if even only a fraction of the predictions about AI machines come to pass.
Williams can't help but lapsing into the most wide-eyed, saccharine dialogue and character-development.
But this doesn't keep the movie from being surprisingly thoughtful and touching. And prescient, raising issues about technology and the future that hardly anyone in the United States really wants to talk about.